From the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) to advanced stages of the disease, physical therapy can help delay disability and preserve your quality of life. A physical therapist will focus on your physical challenges and find appropriate exercises and achievable goals. Your therapist will carefully tailor a program to your specific abilities and needs.
Joint pain and stiffness and fatigue lead many people with RA to give up on physical activity and become increasingly sedentary. However, lack of physical activity can accelerate the progression of the disease and contribute to the development of other conditions such as osteoporosis and obesity.
What does it involve?
Even one to three sessions with a physical therapist may improve mobility and find strategies to work around physical challenges. At your first visit with a physical therapist, they will carefully assess your condition and interview you about your RA activity and medications. The therapist may test your strength or range of motion. They will help you prioritize which problems you want to work on during sessions. A good therapist will encourage you to challenge yourself while respecting your comfort levels.
Your physical therapist will teach you different exercises you can do on your own at home. Which exercises you do with your therapist will depend entirely on your condition and your goals. Exercises may include stretching, strengthening and conditioning movements.
Another helpful component of physical therapy is education. The therapist will teach you strategies for coping with RA symptoms that will help you avoid problems as the disease progresses. Your physical therapist may introduce you to using massage or heat and cold to help you feel better. They may also show you how to use devices such as compression gloves.
It is important not to become discouraged early on in therapy. Focus on slow, gradual progress toward goals.
The three main goals of physical therapy are to ease pain, prevent disability, and improve function.
A 2007 article reviewed the effects of different forms of physical therapy and exercise for rheumatoid arthritis. Although some studies included in the review showed conflicting evidence, the researchers concluded that exercises in general reduce pain and improve function.
Most types of insurance will only pay for a limited number of physical therapy appointments.
Some RA symptoms, including pain, swelling, and stiffness, can make it difficult to stay motivated to keep up with physical therapy exercises. Side effects of medication can also interfere.
Depending on where you live and your level of disability, it may be hard to travel to physical therapy visits.